As of next month, Huffington Post users won't be able to create anonymous accounts to post on the site; going forward, their identities will have to be verified internally. HuffPost recognizes that many people are not in a professional or personal situation where attaching their name to a comment is feasible, and this change will not require users to identify themselves in connection with each comment. Rather, we will ask users to verify their identity when creating an account, which will reduce the number of drive-by or automated trolls. The change will only affect users creating new accounts on HuffPost. Existing accounts will be grandfathered into the new system.
Sometimes in great fiction the simplest moments can be the most revealing. Consider this scene from Harper Lee's To Kill A Mockingbird. Atticus Finch stands waiting outside the jailhouse. Tom Robinson, the black man he is defending on murder charges, is being held inside. Unknown to Atticus, his children, Scout and Jem, are nearby.
Four cars approach the jail slowly and come to a stop. Men exit the cars and make their way toward the door of the jail. Atticus stands between them and the entrance. "You know what we want," one man says. "Get aside from the door, Mr. Finch."
The children push their way into the space between Atticus and the mob. Scout scans the crowd for a familiar face and finds one in Walter Cunningham. She offers a friendly greeting but is met with silence. She persists:
"Don't you remember me, Mr. Cunningham? I'm Jean Louise Finch. You brought us some hickory nuts one time, remember?" I began to sense the futility one feels when unacknowledged by a chance acquaintance.
"I go to school with Walter," I began again. "He's your boy ain't he? Ain't he, sir?"
Mr. Cunningham stays silent. There follows an uncomfortable interval, with the entire assembly standing quiet and stock-still. Scout begins to "feel sweat gathering at the edges of [her] hair," until, finally, Mr. Cunningham breaks the silence.
"I'll tell him you said hey, little lady," he said.
Then he straightened up and waved a big paw. "Let's clear out," he called. "Let's get going, boys."
And thus exposed, the mob dispersed.
Lee's basic claim is this: We are capable of doing far worse things to one another when we do not have to own up to the things we do. The mob grants its members the gift of anonymity, but after Scout outs Mr. Cunningham, there ceases to be a "mob" in any real sense; there is just Mr. Cunningham, and associates. And when some kind of identity is attached to their group, the plans of that group carry a good deal more weight.
It's this tension between anonymity and accountability that is at the heart of a recent decision the Huffington Post has made to move away from anonymous accounts on its commenting platform. From its earliest days, The Huffington Post prioritized investing in its community. We wanted to create a positive environment for people to have a real conversation with each other. We pre-moderated all comments, developed state-of-the-art moderation technology, and hired a platoon of human moderators -- a 40-person-strong team to supplement the technology and ensure a civil environment.
But one glance at our comment section or the comment sections of other sites demonstrates what we're all up against. Trolls have grown more vicious, more aggressive, and more ingenious. As a result, comment sections can degenerate into some of the darkest places on the Internet. At HuffPost, we publish nearly 9 million comments a month, but we've reached the point where roughly three-quarters of our incoming comments never see the light of day, either because they are flat-out spam or because they contain unpublishable levels of vitriol. And rather than participating in threads and promoting the best comments, our moderators are stuck policing the trolls with diminishing success.
There can be tragic consequences, too. Words in online forums and social networks have real power to wound. Caroline Criado-Perez, the campaigner who successfully petitioned to have a woman put on UK currency, received almost 50 rape threats an hour on Twitter after the announcement that Jane Austen would appear on the £10 note. Or take the case of 14-year-old Jamey Rodemeyer, who ended his life after suffering years of bullying and anonymous online abuse. Here's a small sample of the unsigned postings about Jamey on Formspring:
"JAMIE IS STUPID, GAY, FAT ANND UGLY. HE MUST DIE!"
"I wouldn't care if you died. No one would. So just do it :) It would make everyone WAY more happier!"
Would the disturbed people who posted these comments have done so if they couldn't hide behind anonymity?
It's simple and painless to decry online toxicity; it's harder and more important to do something about it. We at The Huffington Post have chosen to take an affirmative step by verifying the identities of new commenter accounts. We won't eliminate every last note of negativity and nastiness on the site, but we believe this change will offer the guarantee of a gut check.
Our hope is that this decision will lead to more of the robust conversations that we love having on HuffPost, and with that end in mind, we invite you to leave your comments below.